At the Options For Youth offices in Hyde Park, dozens of posters cover white walls and display a plethora of information: diagrams of the male and female reproductive systems, the different types of birth control and tips for healthy communication in relationships.
At the front of the room on an August night, a young man in dress clothes points to a poster of “The Five Love Languages.” They are: words of encouragement, appropriate physical touch, quality time, acts of service and giving meaningful gifts.
The young man’s presentation is part of Peer Advocates for Health, a summer program for African-American young men on the South Side. Summer programs often provide young people with exposure to activities that address “holes” in their education, and Peer Advocates for Health offers these young men—who often are missing from conversations about good relationships and living well—training in how to lead healthy lives and in turn, train their peers.
LaRon Sneed, a rising sophomore, said he learned how to be more self-disciplined.
“It taught me how to be a young man,” Sneed says. “It taught me to take responsibility for myself.”
Peer Advocates for Health was founded in 2000 by Options For Youth President Pat Mosena. Mosena had previously established a program to teach teenage mothers about sexual health and birth control in order to delay a second pregnancy and help ensure the girls graduated from high school. Mosena later realized that the organization should also focus on the male side of the birth control equation as well.
Peer Advocates for Health begins in the summer with an 8-week paid “boot camp” that is geared toward 14- to 19-year-old African-American young men on the South Side. About 25 young men are accepted into the program and about half complete it and become peer educators.
During the boot camp, the boys go to class for four to five hours a day, four days a week. They have homework, essays and assignments in the community that they must complete or risk having their pay docked.
“It is not just a summer job,” Mosena said. “It’s very intense.”
The young men learn about healthy relationships, communication and decision-making, education and career planning, birth control and sexual health, and HIV/AIDs—a major health concern on the South Side and elsewhere in the black community.
After the summer boot camp, the Peer Advocates meet once a week during the school year and then, starting in January, take their message to the community by putting together formal health presentations for schools and women’s shelters. They also hold “Let’s talk about it” sessions once a month at middle schools on the South Side. Why would boys be going to women’s shelters?
At the end of the summer, the teens give presentations on topics of their choosing to their family and community members. This year’s eleven Peer Advocates split into four groups for presentations on healthy relationships, teen pregnancy, birth control and avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases.
The girls gather around Chicago Police Department forensic investigator, Eric Szwed, and listen to him describe the steps for examining and processing a crime scene.
“Always be aware of your surroundings when processing evidence,” Szwed says. “It’ll prevent you from contaminating the scene.”
The young women, clad in hairnets, face masks and booties, look around curiously. Several professionals from the police department and other agencies are on hand to point out to the girls what to notice and collect.
Today’s event is part of Forensic Investigators, a summer program that teaches students in middle school and high school how to look at a crime scene from a scientific point of view. It’s the newest program run by Project Exploration, a non-profit initiative that works foster interest in science among students traditionally missing from the field.
Like the young men Peer Advocates, the young women participating in Forensic Investigators say they learned something that they will keep with them for their life.
Kaylor Oscar, a rising junior at Perspectives High School of Technology, says she wants to be a forensic scientist when she grows up. Oscar has been participating in Project Exploration summer programs since 7th grade, and says a forensic scientist who was a guest speaker at one program piqued her interest in the career. She immediately signed up when she heard that Forensic Investigators was being launched.
Project Exploration Chief Executive Officer Paige Ponder said the young women chosen for the program are not necessarily honors students.
“We want students who may be struggling academically because it would have more of an impact for them,” Ponder says. “This way, their learning in school is applied to real life.”
The crime scene activity comes at the end of the first week. The students will then process the “evidence” in a lab. On the last day of the program, they’ll present the evidence as “expert witnesses” in a mock trial.
“Our model is students working with practicing professionals,” Ponder says. “It takes a village, man, to raise forensic scientists!”
Oscar is actively engaged as she investigates the crime scene, but notes that she wants to work in a lab. Some day, she says, she would love to come back to Project Exploration and teach other students about her profession.
“I love Project Exploration, because they give young people opportunities they might not get anywhere else – and it’s free.”